There are few position groups currently in the rugby world as stacked as the England back row and among the healthy – and at times unhealthy – debate on who should feature in such a star-studded unit, long-time starter Billy Vunipola has borne the brunt of the criticism.
It was not that long ago that Eddie Jones’ side were utterly reliant on the big ball-carrying No 8, to the point that he had no natural replacement in the side and if he were facing a spell on the sidelines with injury or suspension, chances are England’s form and results on the pitch would take a dive in his absence.
In a pack that did not always boast the most proficient of ball-carriers, Vunipola was integral to getting England moving forward and allowing the dual-playmaker axis of George Ford and Owen Farrell to shine. In the aftermath of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, there was a case to be made that England were more reliant on Vunipola than any other nation was on an individual player, barring perhaps Ireland and Johnny Sexton.
Times change, however, and not only has England’s stock of back rows blossomed following the emergences of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill as genuine Test arena stars, and Ben Earl and Jack Willis pushing their own claims, but the ball-carrying ability of the tight five has also prospered with Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler and Maro Itoje all adding to Mako Vunipola’s prodigiousness with the ball in hand.
Ironically, with the ball-carrying requirements having lessened on the younger Vunipola brother, critics are keen to point to the fact he is no longer breaking off three or four big tackle-busting runs every game and this has led to the misconception that he is out of form. With Earl and Willis thriving at Bristol Bears and Wasps respectively, not to mention Sam Simmonds troubling the scorers seemingly each and every game with Exeter Chiefs, some have suggested that Vunipola’s place in the starting XV is under the threat.
Whilst Vunipola’s metres per carry may have dropped in the last couple of years, it is important to recognise that this is not necessarily due to a drop in form, but rather a change in role. With the likes of George, Sinckler and Itoje picking up the slack as carriers at first receiver, Vunipola’s quantity of carries has understandably diminished. Underhill and Curry have both brought strong carrying games, too, with the former excelling in space and as a support-runner, and the latter adding his physicality to the tighter exchanges.
This has allowed Vunipola to excel in other areas, such as giving England a strong kick receipt and an ability to ensure that his side has front-foot ball deep inside their own 22, rather than risking losing possession on the back-foot in the face of a ferocious kick chase. Likewise, his physicality and work rate in defence has improved and he wins the collisions on that side of the ball that allow the likes of Curry, Underhill and Itoje to jackal from a position of strength. He is not too shabby over the ball himself, either.
With a more balanced carrying effort from the England pack, Vunipola is able to influence the game in other areas and it seems no coincidence that his excellent defensive contributions are coming at a time when Jones has prioritised defence and physicality. If Jones’ comments about focusing on attack post-British and Irish Lions tour are true and not a smokescreen, there’s no reason to doubt that we will see a more heavily involved Vunipola in England’s attack moving toward the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
It’s unfortunate for a player like Simmonds that he doesn’t seem to fit the mould of what Jones is looking for at the base of the scrum and he isn’t the first player, nor will he be the last, to light up the Gallagher Premiership and miss out on regular international action due to the depth of the player pool and a coach’s particular preference when it comes to individual positional traits. This is certainly true of Zach Mercer, too.
That leaves Earl and Willis as the pretenders to the English back row throne and whilst their claims are entirely worthy, it is from current teammate Curry where Vunipola’s most potent challenge could come.
As a fresh-faced jackaling openside brought into the team to help create more turnovers, Curry has now evolved into a versatile hybrid back rower who can legitimately fill any role asked of him in the loose forwards. It would not be surprising if this were always Jones’ vision for him, which would explain why he initially got the nod ahead of his brother Ben, who has always looked the more natural openside of the pair.
Tom may not boast Vunipola’s size or ability to ride tackles from a standing start, but he is beginning to win in all the areas that Vunipola himself excels.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 24, 2020
Curry can generate power in the collision with very little momentum, his physicality is second to none for his size and he has started to offer that same kind of violence in the carry that makes him all but impossible to be stopped one-on-one. Throw into the mix that he is also now beginning to have more involvement on the kick receipt and he is slowly but surely ticking those same boxes that Vunipola has been completing for years. Let us not forget that Curry is also rapidly becoming a highly effective lineout option, something which adds to his value significantly as it allows Jones to have more freedom with his other selections in the back row.
Curry’s consistency also reflects very favourably on him and it would not be surprising if at some point over the next 12 months, he is trialled at No 8 from the start of a game. If Vunipola were to get injured or Jones looks elsewhere whilst the talismanic back rower is plying his trade in the Greene King IPA Championship, an ajar door is all it seems it would take for Curry to prosper in a new role in England’s pack.
Genge has responded to a video of an incident that has sparked an online debate tonight. https://t.co/3xVQp1Nba7
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 28, 2020
So, whilst the form and abilities that Earl and Willis bring are important – and Jones won’t make changes for the sake of it – it has relatively little bearing without Curry showcasing that he can fill that Vunipola role in the starting XV. And he is getting there, for sure.
That all said, we should do away with the notion that Vunipola is out of form or that a less flashy Vunipola is in fact any less of a contributor to England’s current success. The biggest compliment that you can currently pay England is that they simply do not look like losing and Vunipola is a sizeable part of that.
As exciting as it is to see Earl and Willis lighting up the Premiership – and shining in a 6-2 English bench split – it is hard to say that they would make England a better team than Vunipola does.
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